Should I really be doing this?
For more than 40 years, Paul Simon has been writing some of the most famous and best-loved songs in pop. But he´s still worried that he picked the wrong career. As he releases a new album, he talks to Neil McCormick
´I made the choice to write music when I was very young. I constantly question it,´ Paul Simon reflects. This surprising admission of self-doubt from one of the greatest singer-songwriters of our times is delivered wryly, Simon´s soft New York voice expressing amusement and bemusement in equal measure, all wrapped up with an air of philosophical resignation.
Too late to stop now: Paul Simon
´I don´t know where I stand in the culture,´ continues the man who has crafted hits across five decades and continues to sell out stadiums as half of Simon and Garfunkel, perhaps pop´s most famous duo. ´I don´t know if pop music is an age-appropriate vehicle of artistic expression. But, since this is the discipline I´ve been working with for 50 years, it´s probably too late to leave now.´
Which is good news for his admirers. Six years since his last album, Simon has returned with a scintillating new collection of songs, Surprise. ´There is no fool like an old fool, and I don´t want to be an old fool´ is his explanation for the length of time the recording has taken. ´There´s just more of a penalty to saying something stupid now than when I was young. You´re in your twenties, you make mistakes. What did I know? In your sixties, what´s your excuse?´
With thin hair plastered unconvincingly across his bald scalp, face puffy and wrinkled, the short, squat superstar looks every bit his 64 years, yet his singing voice remains astonishingly high and sweet and youthful, as if unsullied by the passage of time. It is the same voice of yearning and consolation that can be heard effortlessly harmonising with his old school mate, Art Garfunkel, on such classics as The Sound of Silence and The Boxer, or flitting casually, almost conversationally through ´70s solo highlights such as Slip´ Slidin´ Away and 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.
´I feel great affection for those old songs,´ he says. ´Their familiarity carries a great emotional power. For people that were there, songs are associated with a certain person or memory, and the power of that is magnified over the years. The songs are our lives. But I can´t go there as a writer. Those songs existed in a context. If I tried to write something like The Sound of Silence now, it would be wrong. That time frame doesn´t exist any more.´
There is a restlessness to Simon´s creativity. ´The premise isn´t to change,´ he says, ´but that is a natural inclination.´ He broke up his partnership with Garfunkel at the height of their success, following the release of the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, which outsold the Beatles in 1970. Although the duo would subsequently reunite for specific events, the relationship had become fractious, and Simon wanted to widen his musical palette.
There was a jazzy groove and complex chordal structure to his ´70s soft-rock chronicles of urban romantic malaise, but his whole songwriting style was radically transformed in 1986 on the multi-million selling Graceland, boldly yet seamlessly incorporating South African rhythms and sounds, a world-music adventure that continued by embracing Brazilian musical themes on 1990´s The Rhythm of the Saints.
´For the last couple of decades, I have been writing in a backwards fashion. I start with a rhythmic premise, move to a sound colour, to structure, then melody, then lyrics. It enables me to react to stimulae, the same way you do when you are talking to someone. The nature of conversation is that it´s shapeless. If we knew exactly what was going to be said, we would be bored and wouldn´t have the conversation.
´I´ve been doing this for so long that I tend to anticipate what´s going to happen very early on in the process, and so I leave the obvious before I get there. It requires a certain type of listener who enjoys changing the subject rather rapidly.´
The new album credits ambient boffin Brian Eno as a provider of ´sonic landscapes´ (´We met at a dinner party, and I thought right away that combining his electronics with my songs would take them into a whole other place,´ says Simon), and it sets Simon´s distinctive oeuvre firmly in the 21st century, a feat all the more remarkable because it has been achieved without mimicking modern trends. It is a mellifluous, melodic concoction of global grooves and chiming licks through which Simon´s voice weaves and floats like a troubadour in space, contemplating the big questions.
´I´m really not trying to make a point,´ he says of lyrics that grapple with religious and political fundamentalism (How Can You Live in the Northeast), mortality (That´s Me), spirituality (Everything About It is a Love Song), the capriciousness of fate (I Don´t Believe), the instinct for belief during times of danger (Wartime Prayer), anger at the injustice of life (Outrageous) and the solace of family (Beautiful, Father and Daughter).
´I´m not reaching for any profundities or any kind of spiritual message, and, if anything is coming through on that level, it´s just a reflection of what this age is. I don´t believe as an artist that my destiny is to be a provocateur or agitator. I´m not a nihilist. I like art that aspires to a certain definition of beauty.
´This record is meant to be really enjoyable on a visceral level; I feel like you don´t even have to pay attention to the lyrics if you don´t want to. If you do, well I´m talking about various subjects that are of interest to me, but I hope that they´re not lectures. I´m just an observer who loves sound and rhythm.´
If Simon´s art has always struck a precarious balance between the expression of a heavy heart with a deceptively light musical touch, the same contrast is evident in his conversational style. He is, by his own admission, a chronic over-thinker (which may be why he spends so long on each album), obsessed with detail, but is nevertheless disinclined to take himself too seriously. He describes the oddly lateral lyrical style he has evolved as akin to his thought process, ´bouncing backwards and forwards between different ideas, emotional moments followed by jokes. I think this, then I answer that, then finally say, ´I guess the song is over; what´s it all about?´ ´
Despite his insistence that lyrics are not his prime consideration, Surprise is a dazzling work that somehow evokes the uncertainty and angst of the 21st century, without hitting the panic button. ´It´s a very uncomfortable time. I´m the same as anybody who´s paying attention. I´m scared. I´m disturbed. I´m wondering what course of action I could take. The culture we´re in now is controlled by professional polarisers. They don´t care that much about why somebody might think something completely different from them, they´re just happy to identify the enemy and say, ´It´s you or me.´
´If that´s the way the world is heading, we´re all in for a lot of pain, and maybe that´s exactly what has to happen in order to get out of this particular cycle of pain. Maybe not. Maybe I´ll be around to see it, and maybe I won´t. I don´t know.
´All of this is stuff that´s not really the subject matter of popular music, so I touch on it because it crosses my mind, but then I try to say something funny because, on a certain level, the whole thing´s hilarious. The species is hilarious. We´re just a bunch of polluters who can´t help inventing things, and every time we invent something it just leaves more garbage around.
´If I weren´t part of the species, I would definitely be a critic, but, as I happen to be a human being, I´m for us. That´s the way I see it, and I put it to this rhythm. And, if I´m comfortable that I didn´t lie, or I wasn´t angry or bitter, nor was I falsely optimistic, then OK. Fine. That´s a song.´
There is a quality of serenity and acceptance in Surprise that perhaps reflects the emotional stability of Simon´s marriage to Edie Brickell, former lead singer of the New Bohemians (you may recall their 1998 hit What I Am). The couple wed in 1992 and have three children.
Allusions to domestic contentment are threaded through Surprise and its predecessor You´re the One (2000), in contrast to such earlier heart-wracked works as Still Crazy After All These Years (1975) recorded in the wake of divorce from his first wife Peggy Harper, and Hearts and Bones (1983), which followed the break-up from second wife, actress Carrie Fisher. The latter was originally intended as a Simon and Garfunkel reunion album, until Simon elected to erase all of his partner´s vocals. Following an argument after a short reunion tour in 1993, the duo didn´t talk to each other for 10 years.
The friendship was patched up in 2003, leading to an extensive world tour that culminated with a free concert before 600,000 fans at the Colosseum in Rome in 2004. ´I really needed to repair that relationship before something happened to one of us and it was frozen forever in a bad place,´ according to Simon. ´We just went back to when we were kids: ´We liked each other, we were best of friends, let´s not let anything interfere with that.´ ´
Such is the almost zen-like aura of contentment currently exuded by an artist known for his obsessiveness and drive that he even manages to sound at peace when he´s channelling anger. Outrageous is one of the album´s stand-out tracks, on which a put-upon everyman complains about the state of the world. ´I have an exceptionally privileged life, and I´m not entitled to any complaints,´ Simon admits. ´But then I go on and complain anyway.´
His concerns about the ´misery of the poor´ and ´the crimes some human beings must endure´ are soon diverted, however, by a more prosaic chorus wondering, ´Who´s gonna love you when you´re looks are gone?´ Yet even this petty privation is subverted on a final soaring coda concluding: ´God will, like He waters the flowers on your window sill.´
´That´s a nice thought,´ laughs Simon, ´if you believe that God is watering the flowers. If you don´t believe that, then it´s a big joke on all of us, because it´s not such a happy ending. Both are true as far as I´m concerned.´
´I´m not interested in religion as a path towards God,´ he says. ´My interest in religion is that it doesn´t annihilate me or my family.´ Yet there is a strong sense of spiritual quest about the album. In contrast to the worldliness of his early solo output, he seems to be returning to the sense of wonder that infused his more youthful songs.
´Beauty seems to come from symmetry. That seems to be written into the planet earth, maybe the universe. Symmetry is a very powerful force, far more complex than I can understand, but I´m trying to learn about it and use it. It´s ironic that the way I´m doing it is in this art form which is so puerile, but that´s what I picked when I was 14.´